This week's column by Ctein
Last column I told you what is wrong with Adobe's Brave New Photoshop, and we had a jolly good time bashing the Big A, didn't we! Now we've got that out of our system. (and please don't repeat the same rants this week, pretty please? You've had weeks to vent. Let's move on.) This time I'm going to talk about how I've come to think this is a really good idea. Seriously.
Last October, I was on an airplane thinking high and lofty thoughts (I need an airplane to get there) about Adobe's plan to, several years down the road (ahem), move their products to a subscription system. It had not been a prospect that pleased me. But as I followed said thoughts along, an epiphany occurred: This could prove to be the best thing that could happen. For Adobe and, more importantly (to me) for Photoshop users.
And, so, on that flight, I became a convert. While it holds a great many potential "gotchas," I think subscription licensing allows Adobe to solve a whole bunch of problems for them and for us that would otherwise be nearly intractable. I shall explain:
Part 1 of the epiphany: A company like Adobe, with a mature market and an expensive, mature product, is looking at a gloomy future. We are not just entering the post-PC era, we're entering the $.99 application era. Increasingly, people are expecting to pay very little for a piece of software. That trend is even stronger among newer users. It's not a purchasing attitude that is terribly compatible with $500+ programs.
The situation is even more extreme when you look at tablet applications. Adobe just has to be looking hard at those. Aside from it being the major growth market now, a tablet is just such a perfect tool for a traveling photographer. While Photoshop-iOS is just a bit much to hope for with current technologies, think of what you could do with full-fledged Lightroom or Bridge plus ACR on an iPad! But, how many iPad apps have you seen that are priced above $10? Uh huh. Serious disconnect with the market.
(Sidebar: in fact, I'm really surprised that I haven't seen Lightroom or Bridge for the iPad, yet. The hardware is up to the task and even the current desktop interface design works fair-ta-middlin' on an iPad. I think it's gotta be the code port, which isn't trivial. But I'm waiting, he said impatiently.)
Adobe ain't stupid. They can see the handwriting on the wall. Figuring out what to do about it is another matter.
Part 2: The prevailing revenue model for companies like Adobe screws everybody over, badly. Their economies and cash flows depend on new version releases, because the market isn't growing enough anymore to give them significant revenues from new customers. They have to make their money on releases. It's feast with a new release and try not to starve until the next one. This is a destructive and hurtful system.
Ask code jockeys how often they'd like to see new product releases and they'll tell you no more frequently than once every 2–3 years. That gives them enough time to figure out the improvements they'd like to make, write reasonably decent code for them, and properly (fingers crossed, here) debug them.
Ask the folks who control the bank accounts how often they'd like to see new product releases and they'll tell you once a year. Because they need to keep the money coming in, and they need their balance sheets to not fluctuate wildly from fiscal year to fiscal year, and most importantly they need to deal with the plutocracy who actually own their asses and have the attention span and farsightedness of mayflies.
Do you really think the big institutional stockholders give a damn whether the product you buy is buggy as all hell or really has enough new features to be worth the price of upgrading? Nope, not so long as things don't get so bad that you stop buying. Which you won't, because we've all gotten used to the idea that lame and half-baked are adjectives that inevitably accompany version X.0, which will be very quickly followed by version X.1 that fixes a whole bunch (but by no means all) of the crap that should have been fixed before the product was ever allowed out the door.
Except...properly fixing all those known bugs or getting the new feature to really work right would have delayed shipping by so many weeks, and there'd go Someone Important's dividend or stock price.
This gets reflected in the way these companies work. You'd think that mature, well-established companies wouldn't operate like garage startups. Except, they do. They perpetuate a culture that expects their employees to work absurdly long hours without any additional compensation in the weeks/months just before release, to ensure that the product can get rolled out on the schedule the moneymongers have demanded. Doesn't matter that it's an insane way for people to have to live and work. The folks in charge certainly don't care, because they know full well that if you're too sane to put up with that kind of madness, they can likely find someone else who's just as brilliant and more servile (or at least hungrier and more desperate) than you.
All of this is hard to change, especially the too-early, half-baked buggy releases, when your company is entirely dependent upon selling those new releases to stay in business.
What does a subscription economic model do? It gives a producer a way to drop its (perceived) price. In the few years that Adobe has been pursuing this course, it has been steadily pushing the price down. Not as far as I think it needs to go, yet. $19.95 is not a magic number. $9.95 is. It's sales psychology: inflation be damned, single-digit prices still sell hugely better than double digits. (I'll bet you anything that by the time the "introductory year" is up, that first-year price of $9.95 a month will become the permanent price for installed users.)
On the whole, consumers find it more palatable to pay $10 a month on an ongoing basis, than to have to spring for $150 every year or two. It's not about how much it adds up to, it's about how much it hits the cash flow and how it's perceived psychologically. Equally importantly, more people find it palatable. There's been some fallacious thinking that the photography world is divided into three groups: Those who pay for Photoshop, those who pirate Photoshop, and those who don't care at all about Photoshop. Wrong; there's a very large untapped market of people who would get into Photoshop if it wasn't going to cost them more than half a grand. A very large fraction of that group won't think twice about paying the monthly subscription fee; frankly, it's not a lot of money for most photographers, or even for many college students these days.
Want to expand your market? Making your product more affordable is a sure way to do it, and a monthly subscription is definitely perceived as more affordable by more people.
Which is why this is a good deal for Adobe, even at $10 a month.
But what about the rest of us? I mean, personally, I don't care about Adobe getting a good deal. Why do I think this'll be a good deal for me? Because, it makes it possible to break that cycle of abuse that's created by profit-driven product release cycles and that saddles us with half-baked software.
If people are subscribing and they're satisfied with the product they're getting (that's important!), a steady cash flow is assured. There's always some subscriber rot that has to be balanced by new subscribers, but it's predictable and even, not boom or bust like release cycles.
That means there's a lot less pressure to release a new feature until it works really right and there's no pressure to release a new full version. You don't have to rush a half-baked, buggy hunk of code out the door by Date X, tricked up with cooler tailfins and more chrome on the grille, just to insure the rich get even richer. This is good for thee and me: there are fewer changes and the ones there are are more meaningful and useful.
The transition's rocky. You've got to give people an incentive to make the switch, which is why Photoshop CC has the usual panoply of new bells and whistles, both astonishing and trivial. Once that switch is made, though, there's little reason for people to stop subscribing unless a competitor comes out with something preferable. This relieves the code monkeys of much of the burden of trciking out next year's model, because there doesn't even have to be a next year's model. They can concentrate on rolling out new capabilities as they develop them and on fixing the deficiencies that bother users the most rather than on what will sell upgrades (they're not the same thing).
Is it guaranteed to work out this way? Oh, most definitely not. Never underestimate people's ability to figure out ways to screw things up. But it allows for the possibility—even (in this case, I think) the probability. The release-driven profit model just doesn't give you a chance.
There you have it. That's my epiphany, and I'm sticking to it.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reservedCtein (it's his entire legal name) has been writing for photography publications for more than four decades. This is his 288th column for TOP.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Andre: "I work in the software industry, and Ctein's absolutely correct that businesses that run on a subscription model (or get most of their income from ongoing support contracts) have less external financial pressure to 'get something out the door this quarter.' Whether that will translate into better products in Adobe's case remains to be seen. There are a lot of other drivers of 'bad behavior' in big software houses that can still result in dumb decisions regarding release schedules, feature sets, and product quality."
Doug Howk: "I think the Adobe coders and QA people may see it differently. Its one thing if new features stand alone; but that's unlikely with a huge code base such as Photoshop. Without a target release that all coders/QA etc. are pushing for, you will have more buggy small releases. Its like coding for the cloud: one forgotten update for a file that actually impacted more than one new feature will affect everybody using that code base, i.e. users. Stable releases that have been QA'd as a whole are a lot safer."
Chris Morse: "No Lightroom for iPad? Have you seen Photosmith? Disclosure: I'm co-owner/co-developer."
Gato: "First, I think this is a great deal for new users. Second, I think younger people are far more open to subscription than we older folks. Together that sounds to me like a win for Adobe—and many of their customers. Depending on what assumptions/guesses you make about upgrades and pricing, it looks to me like a new user is ahead for at least five to seven years in terms of cash outlay. Longer if they put the costs on a credit card and pay interest. A lot of people who couldn't afford Photoshop (or Creative Suite) before will likely be jumping in.
"A lot of those prospective users are of a generation already used to buying their music, television, movies and more on subscription. One more $20 tick on the credit card is mostly invisible to them, I suspect.
"For the record, I am a convert. Adobe introduced the subscription model at a time when I desperately needed to buy InDesign and Illustrator. At first I felt forced into the subscription model, but the more I played with the math on the cost the better it looked. By now I've gotten several really useful upgrades, plus I have picked up Premier Pro and attempted my first videos. My next self-assignment is learning the collaboration features in the cloud. That will let me partner with a new business in the next town down the road. I'm supposed to be retired, but I'm using Adobe for some kind of personal or business project almost every day of the week. I'm sure the cloud plan will not work for everyone, but it sure works for me."
Rob: "It seems contradictory to refer to Photoshop as a mature product, while praising the new subscription policy as a means to promote greater innovation by the developers. 'Mature' implies that there are few major innovations remaining to be added to the program. Therefore, periodic upgrades will most likely consist of minor tweaks and frilly features. Nevertheless, Adobe is asking users to pay continually for the privilege of using software that may not be improved substantially over the coming years. It is clear how this is to Adobe's advantage, but not so clear how it is to ours."
Will Frostmill (partial comment): "Ctein, Your scenario is lacking drama and complexity—it is in fact quite dull. And therefore likely to be quite accurate. Good job!"